Friday, October 02, 2009

Roman Polanski is a god, and other observations about whether artists should be expected to act like the rest of us

One wonders about the judgment of the critics of Roman Polanski, the famous cinematic auteur (I would say "movie director," but that would fail to capture the ambiance of the artistic genius of the man). They seem to think that he is somehow subject to the rules by which the rest of us--we mere mortals--must abide.

They forget that Roman Polanski is an artist.

Now this simple truth is being completely ignored by Polanski's critics, who fail to make a distinction between those of here on earth, and those, like Polanski, who inhabit the empyrean heights. He is guilty of raping a 13 year-old girl they say. But what is 'rape'? What is 'guilty'? What is 'a 13 year-old girl'?

These questions arise every time an artist is brought up on charges that concern some incident, usually involving the abuse of children. In recent times, we have endured the controversy surrounding another movie director (if I may use that somewhat mundane terminology): Woody Allen. Allen married one of his movie co-stars, Mia Farrow. He then began having an affair with one of Farrow's children. When the affair was discovered, Allen became incredulous that his behavior was being questioned.

Yes, those of us who dwell here in the sublunary world must be judged by these base standards of decency, but this was Woody Allen we were talking about. What were his critics thinking? Did they think they were dealing with a forklift driver? Did they think it was a controversy about a plumber? Did they think Allen was some plebian with a nine-to-five job who went bowling on Friday night?

You and I may have inhibitions about statutory rape and incest, but we're talking about an artist here.

Then there was Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe was a photographer. But not just any photographer, not just some guy who does family portraits who, if he broke statutory rape laws would be put away for the rest of his life. No, sir, he didn't just take pictures: he used the camera to compose. Had Rembrandt been a photographer, he would have ... well, maybe not. Rembrandt didn't paint child pornography. Mapplethorpe did.

But it wasn't child pornography. Yes, it included sexually provocative portrayals of children, and such portrayals are illegal in our world, but these are mortal judgments, inapplicable to such as Mapplethorpe.

Thankfully, Mappelthorpe is no longer composing--only because he is decomposing. He died in 1989. Of AIDS.

If being an artist was not enough to excuse what some base thinkers consider perversion, then his being gay should completely remove any grounds for blame. Being gay, as we all know, excuses all aberrant behavior. Just ask former New Jersey Governor James McGreevey--and former Congressman John Foley.

Which brings us to Polanski. Polanski too is a god, his deity fully evident from his filmography: "Rosemary's Baby," "Chinatown", "Tess," not to mention films such as "Le gros et le maigre," "Les plus belles escroqueries du monde," and "Le locataire." We don't know what these titles mean. Quite possibly, they may be translated "Freddie Krueger's Day Off," "National Lampoon's Paris Vacation," and "Porky's IV," but they are in French, and that is all that matters.

After Polanski's rape of a 13 year old girl in 1977 and his subsequent conviction in California on a lesser charge, he fled the country before sentencing, choosing instead the friendlier shores of Europe, where pedophilia among artists is apparently considered an amusing peccadillo.

Admittedly, the idea that artists should be allowed to ignore common standards of human decency has been questioned. In 1944, the writer George Orwell wrote an essay entitled, "Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali," in which he reviews the autobiography of the famous surrealist painter.

The book, he claims, was quite simply narcissistic, "a striptease act," said Orwell, "conducted in pink twilight." The book's only value, he said, was "as a record of fantasy, of the perversion of instinct that has been made possible by the machine age."

Orwell catalogs Dali's fond reminiscences of his childhood: kicking his infant sister; flinging a little boy off a bridge; humiliating a girl who loves him for five years, at which point he abandons her--as promised; asking his future wife to kill him after their first kiss. And speaking of his first wife, Orwell points out that, in the course of wooing her, Dali "rubbed himself all over with an ointment made of goat’s dung boiled up in fish glue."

Surely this must have set her heart aflutter.

Oh, and then there was the childhood feat of biting an ant-covered bat in half. Ozzie Osbourne, it seems, was not the original we took him to be.

Orwell notes two things that characterize Dali's paintings: sexual perversity and necrophilia. And then, he adds, in the high tones of the art critic, "there is a fairly well-marked excretory motif." Or, as the artistically primitive observer might say, he likes to paint poop--a tendency that apparently elicited some to ask whether he was coprophagic. It was a false charge, Dali asserted, "but it seems," says Orwell, "to be only at that point that his interest in excrement stops."

If you don't know what 'coprophagic' means, that is probably good. It is best left to the artists.

"Dali also boasts that he is not homosexual," Orwell writes, "but otherwise he seems to have as good an outfit of perversions as anyone could wish for."

Then Orwell goes all moralistic on us. Apparently blind to the aesthetic appeal of human feces, he condemns Dali altogether:
The point is that you have here a direct, unmistakable assault on sanity and decency; and even—since some of Dali’s pictures would tend to poison the imagination like a pornographic postcard—on life itself. What Dali has done and what he has imagined is debatable, but in his outlook, his character, the bedrock decency of a human being does not exist. He is as anti-social as a flea. Clearly, such people are undesirable, and a society in which they can flourish has something wrong with it.
And then, after this little sermon, Orwell starts declaring victim status, complaining about the kind of condemnation that his own failure to appreciate the finer artistic points of human skulls, putrefying donkeys, and decomposing human corpses has elicited:
If you say that Dali, though a brilliant draughtsman, is a dirty little scoundrel, you are looked upon as a savage. If you say that you don’t like rotting corpses, and that people who do like rotting corpses are mentally diseased, it is assumed that you lack the aesthetic sense.
And the problem is...?

But Orwell is only getting to his main question, in which he impertinently asks where artists get off thinking they should be treated differently than anyone else when it comes to ordinary human morality:
It will be seen that what the defenders of Dali are claiming is a kind of benefit of clergy. The artist is to be exempt from the moral laws that are binding on ordinary people. Just pronounce the magic word ‘Art’, and everything is O.K.

...In an age like our own, when the artist is an altogether exceptional person, he must be allowed a certain amount of irresponsibility, just as a pregnant woman is. Still, no one would say that a pregnant woman should be allowed to commit murder, nor would anyone make such a claim for the artist, however gifted. If Shakespeare returned to the earth to-morrow, and if it were found that his favourite recreation was raping little girls in railway carriages, we should not tell him to go ahead with it on the ground that he might write another King Lear.
Funny that Orwell mentions rape.

He argues that one has to make a distinction between good art and bad morals, and that sometimes the twain of the two meet, but that such a meeting ought not to confuse us about what we are presented with. Dali, he says, was an accomplished draughtsman whose artistic talent should be appreciated--and a vile human being who ought to be horsewhipped:
...[I]t should be possible to say, ‘This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.’ Unless one can say that, at least in imagination, one is shirking the implications of the fact that an artist is also a citizen and a human being.
Demanding the recognition that artists are also citizens and human beings? But that would be like saying that we think Roman Polanski is a great filmmaker and at the same time that we think he should be locked up for raping a 13 year-old girl.

And we can't have that.

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